Friday, December 19, 2014

The Foreign Language Finalist List: Let's Hear It For the Little Guys

Earlier today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the nine-film finalist list for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This year, a record 83 films were submitted, meaning that the competition was going to be tight for the nine spots on this list. Moreover, this was the first year to utilize an executive committee that selects three of the nine films separately from the rest of the voting branch. We will likely never know what three films were the committee's choice, but it does account for some of the odd inclusions this year.

The biggest story, though, is who was omitted. Xavier Dolan's film Mommy, Canada's submission, failed to make the cut after being a huge festival hit, including winning the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Similarly, Winter's Sleep, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, was similarly overlooked, ending Turkey's chance at its first nomination. Another Cannes hit, Belgium's submission Two Days, One Night, also failed to make the cut, proving that the Academy is likely never going to "get" the Dardennes Brothers' films (despite wide international acclaim, they have yet to have a film nominated, or even be shortlisted). Finally, Golden Globe nominee Gett: The Trial of Vivian Ansalem (Israel) is absent, as are submissions from Oscar favorites such as France (Saint Laurent), Denmark (Sorrow and Joy), Germany (Beloved Sisters), and last year's winner, Italy (Human Capital). Interesting trivia: this will be the first year of the 2010s in which neither Denmark nor Canada will be nominated; those two have been favorites in the category for the past four years.

Those who did make the list, however, represent an eclectic mix of styles, genres, and nations, with three of the films in position to be their nations' first nomination. In alphabetical order by nation of origin, here are the nine finalists.

*Winning years in bold*

Wild Tales (Argentina)

Argentina's Oscar record: 6 nominations, 2 wins (1974, 1984, 1985, 1998, 2001, 2009)

In theory, director Damian Szifron's film - which premiered at Cannes earlier this year - seems like an odd pick for the Academy. It's essentially six short films interconnected by dark humor and violence, though they reportedly come together for an entertaining climax. It's not very often that you see a dark comedy make the cut, but the film was a big word-of-mouth hit at Cannes, and performed really well in Argentina as well. Just about everyone who's seen it loves it. It seems like a strong contender to pull a nomination.

Trivia: Argentina is the only non-European nation to have multiple wins in this category.

The rest, plus category predictions, after the jump.

Tangerines (Estonia)

Estonia's Oscar record: never nominated

The somewhat-surprising Golden Globes nod should have been an indicator that director Zaza Urushadze's film is not to be slept on. Set against the backdrop of the 1992 Georgia-Abkhazia War, the follows two tangerine-pickers who remain in their village after it's evacuated and become responsible for the care of two wounded soldiers: one Georgian, one Abkhazian. It sounds like a crowd-pleaser, and its anti-war message will likely be a hit with voters. The Globes nomination has certainly raised its profile, making it a real contender.

Trivia: This is Estonia's first time making the finalist list; none of the nation's other ten submissions advanced to this stage.

Corn Island (Georgia)

Georgia's Oscar record: 1 nomination (1996)

Seeing director Giorgi Ovashvili's film on the list is easily one of the more surprising inclusions, since the film has maintained a very low profile thus far. This film also addresses the Georgia-Abkhazia War, centering on a farmer and his granddaughter who live in a remote region of western Georgia, which is still reeling from the effects of civil war and ethnic cleansing. While the film will likely have it's fans, it's not gathering a lot of support, and Tangerines seems to be the preferred choice in their shared subject matter. It will be truly shocking if it ends up with a nomination.

Trivia: Georgia also pitched in financially with Tangerines, though not enough to dispute whether the film would be deemed "Estonian" enough.

Timbuktu (Mauritania)

Mauritania's Oscar record: never nominated

Director Abderrahmane Sissako's film made a big splash earlier this year at Cannes, where it was considered a dark horse for the Palme d'Or. Since then, the film has proven to be timely in the international scene, focusing on a village in West Africa that comes under the control of Islamist militants. Critics have been gushing about the film ever since, and given the subject matter, it will likely be a shoo-in for a nomination.

Trivia: This film marks the first time that Mauritania has ever submitted to this category.

Accused (The Netherlands)

The Netherlands' Oscar record: 7 nominations, 3 wins (1959, 1973, 1986, 1995, 1997, 2002, 2003)

Released in the Netherlands as Lucia de B., this film concerns the true story of Lucia de Berk, a nurse who was wrongly convicted of several murders during the early 2000s. The Academy has a soft spot for true crime tales in this category, and the sensationalism surrounding this story will likely draw attention to it. Even so, it's a little surprising to see its inclusion, given it's relatively-low profile. It could still sneak into the category, but it would have to overtake some stronger competition.

Trivia: The film's director, Paula van der Oest, also directed the Netherlands' 2002 nominee, Zus & Zo.

Ida (Poland)

Poland's Oscar record: 9 nominations, 0 wins (1963, 1966, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1979, 1981, 2007, 2011)

So far, director Pawel Pawlikowski's film has been the film to beat in this category, winning almost every critics' prize so far this season and scoring a major Golden Globe nomination. The film, which concerns a nun who revisits her Jewish heritage, has also been a major Stateside hit, currently the third-highest-grossing foreign-language film of the year. That combination of critical acclaim and box office success practically guarantee it a nomination, and may even break Poland's long losing streak in this category. (Review)

Trivia: With nine nominations, Poland is second only to Israel (ten) in most nominations without a win.

Leviathan (Russia)

Russia's Oscar record: 5 nominations, 1 win (1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2007)*

To be honest, it's a little surprising that Russia even submitted Andrey Zvyagintsev's searing drama about a man fighting the corrupt local government over the ownership of his land. The film has been critically acclaimed, winning the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes earlier this year and scoring a Golden Globe nomination as well. But it's also been interpreted as highly critical of the Russian government, using the framework of the Biblical Book of Job to craft an allegory of living in corruption. It will pay off for the country, however: the film is one of the strongest contenders in this category, and should easily score a nomination.

Trivia: The film was unable to obtain a screening permit in Russia due to the nation's anti-swearing laws, meaning it was only shown enough times to prevent disqualification in this category.

Force Majeure (Sweden)

Sweden's Oscar record: 14 nominations, 3 wins (1960, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1982, 1983, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2004)

Director Ruben Ostlund's film is essentially the only other foreign-language film to receive prizes from critics' groups so far this year, having been a huge critical hit Stateside and drawing respectable box office receipts to boot. The film is a scathing satire of masculinity, revolving around a man who abandons his family at a (presumably) critical moment and then reeling from the consequences of that decision. There's very little doubt that it will be nominated, and it may even be a contender to win it all.

Trivia: All three of Sweden's wins in this category came for Ingmar Bergman films: The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Fanny & Alexander (1983)

The Liberator (Venezuela)

Venezuela's Oscar record: never nominated

This film is the kind of sweeping historical epic that the Academy tends to gravitate toward in this category. Directed by Alberto Arvelo, the film recounts the story of famed South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, who led campaigns for independence across the continent - including Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia - during the early 19th century. The film is a big-budget spectacle, which should draw a fair number of votes to make it a stealth contender. However, it may not be enough against the tough competition on this list to score a nomination.

Trivia: The film stars Edgar Ramirez, best known Stateside for his roles in the miniseries Carlos (2010), Steven Soderbergh's Che (2008), and Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (2012).

It's often foolish to try to predict the nominees in this category, since the voters in this branch are prone to some unusual whims (some for the better, some not). Yet if I had to guess, I would predict these five films to be the nominees come January 15, in order of likelihood of nomination:

1. Ida (Poland)
2. Force Majeure (Sweden)
3. Leviathan (Russia)
4. Timbuktu (Mauritania)
5. Tangerines (Estonia)

Dark horses: The Liberator (Venezuela), Accused (The Netherlands), Wild Tales (Argentina)

*Statistics do not include nominations or wins for the Soviet Union.

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